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As Chain Stores Wither, Waterfront Video Keeps on Rolling 

State of the Arts

click to enlarge Seth Jarvis
  • Seth Jarvis

Searching for the latest martial-arts assault on your senses from the “Muscles from Brussels,” aka Jean-Claude Van Damme? Netflix can probably feed your fix. Looking for that preposterously cute puppy pic from Jennifer Aniston to tug on your heartstrings like they’re slobber-smeared chew toys? Video on demand from your local cable provider can sate that sweet tooth.

But when it comes to serving the sophisticated tastes of true cinephiles — and fans of local film — nothing quite satisfies like the tactile experience of browsing through a real live video store. Despite last week’s story in the Burlington Free Press about the spate of video chain stores that are going the way of the Betamax, independently owned Waterfront Video is still hanging in there, hawking the Hitchcocks and serving up the Scorseses.

At least, that’s the word from Waterfront video buyer Seth Jarvis, who’s been picking flicks for Burlington and Middlebury video customers since 1997 — more than 19,000 titles in all, at last count.

“It’s definitely been a struggle” competing with the likes of Netflix, Redbox, the online arm of Blockbuster Video and other technological changes in the industry, admits Jarvis, who, incidentally, wasn’t interviewed for the Free Press story. “But we’re doing all right and we have no imminent plans for closure or anything like that.”

Over the years, Waterfront Video has experienced the equivalent of its own box-office bombs, not the least of which was its forced relocation four years ago from its eponymous location on Burlington’s waterfront. That move definitely cost the store customers for a few years, Jarvis says, though many eventually returned. Another bite was taken by the web-based Netflix, which delivers videos to viewers’ homes via the U.S. Postal Service for a monthly flat rate.

Then there are the exclusive distribution rights that studio moguls negotiate with the big video chains, which buy hundreds, if not thousands, of titles at a time, keeping them out of the hands of the smaller indie video shops.

Waterfront Video has managed to survive those setbacks by finding a niche among local video hounds that the big dogs either can’t or won’t fill. For example, the store prides itself on its deep catalogue of local and independent features, “offbeat” cinema, documentaries, foreign films, adult movies, TV series, obscure and out-of-print titles and, notably, flicks that were never released on DVD. Bucking the global trend, Waterfront hung on to its sizeable VHS collection, which could experience a retro revival on par with the renaissance of vinyl records.

In an effort to go with the flow, Waterfront now offers members a prepaid buying card — sort of like the EZ PASS on the New York Thruway — that gets them eight new releases for 30 clams, plus one non-new release gratis.

And Video World’s demise has apparently raised the tide for Waterfront. The local indie store, which already had “several thousand” members in its database, has seen a recent uptick in membership applications due to Video World’s closure — between 40 and 50 new members a week, Jarvis estimates.

Even with all the recent changes in the home-entertainment industry, he says both Waterfront branches will keep on rolling for as long as possible, proffering in-store employee recommendations and filling customer requests. Whether it’s the ice cream in the freezer or the giant gumball machine by the front door, there are some perks video on demand simply can’t offer.

“When you get hooked on a series, sometimes you just need your second disc of ‘Mad Men’ right away,” Jarvis says, referring to the hit TV drama about ’60s-era Madison Avenue ad executives. “Sometimes waiting for Netflix to deliver is not what you prefer to do.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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